West Virginia Louisville 2005 : Turning Point
By Brandon Priddy
This article appeared originally in this year’s print edition of The SignalCaller magazine, but we thought we’d make it available online in celebration of October 15th or as WVU fans know it Steve and Pat Day.
“I’d rather be lucky than good.”
It’s a saying we hear thrown around a lot, something meant to quantify the value of an unexpected break or a surprise quirk of fortune. Being good certainly comes with its own rewards, but being lucky….that can open the door to greatness.
Ask any Mountaineer fan and they’ll tell you their team is plenty of the latter but hardly ever former. From untimely injuries to bad bounces and the always expected blown call, foul luck has become ingrained in the Mountaineer ethos. As one well-known author put it, we’re all simply “waiting for the fall.” It’s a part of our identity. When the chips are down and the stakes are highest, WVU can be expected to draw the worst card; roll snake eyes.
But then there was that night…..that one magical autumn night. Ten years ago this October the stars aligned as the West Virginia Mountaineers saw an impressive if not yet fully appreciated collection of skill and talent become unleashed thanks to a series of very fortunate events as Pat White and Steve Slaton went from afterthoughts to household names. In just over an hour, WVU football was transformed from a peripheral power to a nationally respected force.
To fully appreciate the significance of that night one must step back in time to set the stage. WVU entered their October 15th home tilt with the #19 Louisville Cardinals as a middling 5-1 team. Solid but not spectacular, they’d shown flashes without being overly impressive. Quarterback Adam Bednarik was surprisingly effective on the ground and a competent field general but had been unable to secure the job for himself, splitting time with redshirt freshman Patrick White.
Sharing the backfield with those two signal callers had been a revolving door of running backs. Plagued by ball security problems and a general ineffectiveness, no single one had emerged over the season’s first half. Then a true freshman named Steve Slaton who wasn’t even listed on the week one depth chart separated himself from the pack with a surprising 92 yard effort against Virginia Tech followed by 139 yards and a score against Rutgers in the week’s previous game. So West Virginia seemingly had their feature back, but still no offensive identity.
That remained the case as the home team managed only 56 total first-half yards. The Cardinals scored on the game’s first possession and settled into quiet domination, building a 17-0 halftime lead. The Mountaineers found a brief spark when Slaton scored just his second collegiate touchdown off a Bednarik pass to open the third quarter, but any burgeoning hope was quickly extinguished as the Cards scored easily on the ensuing possession to restore their 17 point margin. A rudderless West Virginia squad just couldn’t get traction. WVU failed to move the ball effectively on their next two possessions and as the fourth quarter began, slim chances for victory faded to seemingly nothing when Bednarik left the field for good with a sprained foot. As the backup White entered the game many of the Mountaineer faithful were leaving it. Having resigned themselves to once again coming up just short, they were angling to beat traffic and headed for the exits in droves.
WVU fan Josh Briggs remembered “it emptied out considerably, it seemed like half the fans left. But I flew up from Florida so I told my friend Scott Lewis ‘I don’t care if we lose by 40, I’m staying.’”
The irony here is the premature departure was something they nearly had in common with their soon-to-be hero. Like the thousands clad in gold and blue, White nearly missed his own moment. “Before that game I was on the cusp of leaving West Virginia to go play baseball (he had been drafted in 2004 by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)” White says. “I was frustrated and felt like I should be the starter, so the day after the Rutgers game I called my father and told him. He said ‘I’ll bring you your glove, but promise me one thing. Go out there in practice this week and enjoy yourself.’ So that’s what I did. Thanks to advice from my father I was able to go out and have a great week of practice and after Adam got hurt to take over.”
So one piece of good fortune in the form of a father’s wisdom had allowed WVU to keep their future superstar, but they’d need a little more to get things back on track. White entered the game and immediately flashed his characteristic shiftiness and speed, scrambling for 6 yards on his first play and then firing a nifty dart 16 yards down the field to Darius Reynaud that nearly doubled his passing total for the day. A little help from the Cards in the form of a pass interference penalty put WVU on the UL 28, but 3 straight incompletions forced 4th and 10. Up to this point the backup’s numbers were exceedingly average; 5 of 8 passing for 37 yards and 4 carries for 10 yards. By all accounts the Mountaineers were a few seconds away from driving the final nail in their own coffin.
But fortune would favor the prepared. That trio of incompletions had all been downfield throws and UL elected to rush just 3, dropping the rest of their defense back in an obvious passing situation in expectation of another downfield shot to move the chains. Now coach Rich Rodriguez leveraged his new signal caller’s unique straight-line speed, calling a designed draw that had White drop back just long enough to let the defense retreat before darting quickly downfield, evading the UL linemen and getting to that wide open space beyond the sticks before anyone else. The drive was alive and WVU was in business at the Card 11.
White took off again on the very next play to get the ball down to the 4 yard line and a play later Slaton would find paydirt. Milan Puskar Stadium had received a jolt of life, but with just over 8 minutes left the 10 point deficit still loomed large. Something special would need to happen to give WVU a real chance. They were fortunate to have any life at all, but to survive any longer they simply needed some good old-fashioned luck. No Mountaineer fan in his right mind could have expected what happened next.
I’d rather be lucky than good.
Remember that saying we started out with? That is exactly where WVU found itself. Rodriguez’s decision to try an onside kick was good. Pat McAfee’s expert boot of the ball high into the air and just past 10 yards was good. Aaron Meckstroth’s single-minded effort to knock Louisville’s Jimmy Riley out of the play as he sat waiting under the ball to catch it was good. Thandi Smith’s corralling of that same ball as he fell to his backside at the WVU 48 yard line was VERY good.
Unfortunately it was completely against the rules. Sometimes you just need to get lucky.
It didn’t look lucky at first. A flag came in during the play and the Big East crew that had so many times been the foil of Mountaineer football huddled at midfield to discuss. Rodriguez and assistant Bill Stewart calmly pleaded their case before referee Dennis Hennigan amazingly waved the flag over his head, announcing there was no foul on the play. An apoplectic Bobby Petrino was beside himself with anger but ultimately powerless to reverse a call that the conference itself would publicly admit was a mistake three days later.
And just like that the game had changed. For that night, for that season……..forever.
Armed with momentum, a newly juiced crowd and a newfound field general, Steve Slaton ran like a man possessed as WVU drove inside the Cardinal 10 before settling for a field goal that would bring them to within 7. The tide had turned however and on the ensuing possession a swarming Mountaineer defense completely stifled what had up to this point been an unstoppable UL attack, consistently collapsing their line while forcing a 3 and out that saw the Cards not even pass the line of scrimmage.
A gutsy punt catch and return in traffic by Vaughn Rivers off a lackluster punt from the rattled Cards put West Virginia in business at the UL 40. Then in a play White remembers to this day, Slaton again showed why he would become one of the greatest running backs in WVU history. “I remember it was a pitch-out towards out sideline and I see Steve and he splits like 6 or 7 defenders and I’m just thinking ‘how did he do that?’” It was a question defenders would find themselves asking a lot over the next few years. Slaton would find the end zone again 6 plays later, inexplicably moving through a wall of red and white to break the goal line play by inches and tie the game. Pandemonium ensued. The improbable comeback was complete.
You don’t need me to tell you the rest. White and Slaton (with a little help from their friend Owen Schmitt) were unstoppable, scoring on 3 straight overtime possessions as Slaton finished with 188 yards on the ground and a school record 6 scores. When the dust cleared West Virginia had not just a backfield, but the most electric tandem in college football. There would be Sports Illustrated covers, bowl trophies and many, many more wins, but it all started with a magical few minutes where WVU finally caught all the breaks.
Voice of the Mountaineers Tony Caridi sums it up well. “Initially nobody knew what the game meant in the big picture. What you did know was that team and staff wasn’t going to back down from anyone. Louisville was very aggressive that game. I think they faked a punt, they went for it, they pushed it. WVU had every reason to quit. But the big thing Rich did was he changed the mentality. We always had this image where we were waiting for Murphy’s Law. But now rather than the victim we were the beneficiary of good things. We expected good things.”
Expecting good things wasn’t something Mountaineer fans were used to, but it’s amazing how a little well-placed luck can change things. So keep that in mind the next time the night look bleak and the clock is winding down. Sure you might get to the Star City bridge before everyone else, but you also might miss the beginning of a whole new era.
That’s the funny thing about luck – everyone gets their turn. You just never know when yours will come.